Kahil El’Zabar ‘America the Beautiful’ LP/CD (Spiritmuse) 5/5

‘America the Beautiful’ marks the new release by revered percussionist, Kahil El’Zabar, on the newly founded Spiritmuse Records. Although Spiritmuse is in fact ‘newly founded’ as we say, their commitment to the presentation of “deep, spiritual & avant-garde jazz” couldn’t be off to a greater start. This year alone has seen vocalist Dwight Trible partner up with the supergroup formation of Cosmic Vibrations for their album ‘Pathways & Passages’, as well as the release of El’Zabar’s first album this year – the pairing with his long-time friend and collaborator, saxophonist David Murray, for their album ‘Spirit Groove’ back in June. Already with a long collaborative history, ‘Spirit Groove’ has received widespread acclaim as potentially being the definitive pairing between the two titans of the genre which is incredibly high praise when considering the exceptional work that came before it.

Kahil El’Zabar’s rich musical catalogue which is rooted in this ethos of collaboration potentially requires little introduction. One of the definitive names in spiritual jazz as far back as the 1970s which has seen the Chicago native front an array of collectives including the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (excitingly a collective also affiliated with Spiritmuse so check out their ‘Be Known’ album release from last year), Ritual Trio, Tri-Factor, Kahil El’Zabar Quartet or the ‘It’s Time’ release by Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnics.

Unfortunately, events over the last few years – particularly within the United States – mean that the title ‘America the Beautiful’ really offers little ambiguity. With the world struggling back to its feet while in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, questionable leadership during these extraordinary circumstances, the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the rise of Far-Right voices… it really does conjure up completely new perspectives on what ‘America the Beautiful’ stands for those living within the US. But even in spite of this war for America’s soul, the title of this album isn’t actually expressed with the disdain that it might appear. This is, of course, a Kahil El’Zabar album so the notion of positivity and unity will forever be associated as synonymous messages within his music – which are voices much needed now.

The album features a mix of covers and original compositions. A track that makes a fascinating inclusion as one of the covers for the project is Charles Wright’s 1971 classic, ‘Express Yourself’; but in light of the themes projected throughout the album, it’s also interesting to consider NWA’s famous 1989 sampling of the song for their track of the same name which took a public stance on the notion of free expression and the increasing constrictions placed upon rappers during the rise in hip-hop’s popularity.

The rousing ‘Freedom March’ marks another highlight as does the exquisite – and at the same time incredibly haunting – ‘Prayers for the Unwarranted Sufferings’. The 8+ minute ‘Sketches of an Afro Blue’ is very potentially the gem of the whole project though with all elements beautifully coming together marking an incredible centrepiece for the album.

The album begins and ends with versions of ‘America the Beautiful’ with each version poignantly connecting differently in the context of everything you’re about to hear on the album and everything you would have just heard. The closing rendition of the track in particular hits hard: some listens may inspire thoughts of the earlier mentioned disdain towards faux ideals while others may take the parting moments as hope that America can actually live up to the values it has attempted to build its new world upon.

Imran Mirza